(a simple, non-technical guide, avoiding 'railway jargon')
Whether it is a simple clockwork train on a circular track, or a huge detailed layout run to a timetable with historically accurate signals and train formations, the essence of a model railway is that it presents the appearance of a working railway. It is essentially the pursuance of this appearance which causes people to spend varying amounts of time and money creating a model railway, sometimes making it a lifetime’s project. Anyone intending to make a model railway, however, must sooner or later confront not the similarities between their model and the real thing, but the differences. Unless these differences are accepted and accommodated in some way, the model is unlikely to be successful or satisfying.
Generally speaking, the purpose of a model railway is to be interesting to see and to operate, whether the ‘interest’ depends on historical accuracy, fidelity to the appearance of the original, or complexity of operation. Those models which contain more detail, more track and rolling stock, are generally more interesting. But it is important to remember that this is not the purpose of a real railway. If the railway companies of the past could have implemented a ‘Star Trek’ method of transporting passengers and goods instantly from A to B they would quickly have abandoned the use of trains, which was always an expensive method of transport. They would never have used more locomotives or coaches than was essential to maintain their traffic, and certainly they would never have built and maintained ‘interesting’ and complex track formations, which were notoriously expensive, without first making every effort to simplify them.
There is another essential difference to be dealt with. Even the largest model railway cannot model an entire line, unless it be a cliff or miniature line. Most if not all interesting lines would ‘go off’ somewhere to connect with the rest of the system. Even a very large layout must compromise, therefore with the need to ‘disappear’ off the edge of the modelled world.
Many modellers begin with the urge to see trains running as soon as possible, and rush into the first type of layout that occurs to them. Many of them find too late that they have committed themselves to a design which is not going to interest them for long, or they see when halfway into construction that they would have been better to adopt a different plan, even to model a different railway altogether. Successful and satisfying layouts are almost always the result of a considerable amount of planning involving compromise and tradeoffs. This can be frustrating at first, though it can become an enjoyable pursuit in itself, but the results of a well-planned layout are usually well worth the time and effort involved.
The first stage in planning is to decide what sort of layout is wanted. All is not what it seems here, for though a large layout may seem more interesting to a beginner, it is likely to prove too exhausting in its construction and operation to be truly satisfying. On the other hand, someone who is determined to be historically accurate above all may spend an enormous amount of time in the construction of a layout which in reality had only three or four trains per day, using at the most two locomotives. It is therefore very important to decide first what one wants from a layout. Common themes include historical accuracy, detailed modelling, and operations. One popular approach is to choose a locale and a period in history, for example Virginia in the 1940s or New Mexico in the 1960s.
For many years the most popular form of layout was the ‘continuous run’, evolving from the simple ‘trainset’ or ‘toy train’ circuit of track. The advantage of this layout is that the trains do indeed run continuously, and a train can be seen running for a period of time not greatly reduced from that of a real train journey. It also avoids the need to have a ‘rest of the world’ located offstage somewhere. The disadvantage, however, is that it is most unrealistic. No real train appears again from the same direction after a few seconds! Modellers who really wish to see main line trains run for lengthy periods, however, may suspend their disbelief, or compromise with this aspect of the model, in the interests of getting what they want.
The other extreme from this type of layout is the ‘branch line terminus’, also known as a point-to-point line. The advantage of this layout is that while simple to operate and requiring few locomotives, it is realistic in operation. The trains arrive and depart like a real branch-line train. Much satisfaction can be gained from the inclusion of a small goods yard and the visit and shunting of the daily goods train. The disadvantage is that all the rolling stock must have an ‘elsewhere’ to go to, off the layout, representing the ‘rest of the system’. This is commonly known as a ‘fiddle yard’ where all traffic intended to run onto the layout is assembled by hand, and of course this requires extra space, often as much as the ‘real’ or modelled part of the layout. Another disadvantage is that the operation can become very unvaried after a while. Modellers whose urge to start a layout came from watching long expresses racing by will not find this very satisfying.
Many layouts follow a middle course, and model a stretch of line with ‘rest of the world’ at both ends. This is both realistic and satisfying to watch. Here too, though, there are disadvantages: two ‘fiddle yards’ are required, one at each end, and the amount of rolling stock required to represent a realistic selection of traffic is considerable. The modeller with time and space to spare will, however, find this a source of satisfaction.
To decide which layout to build requires some decision as to the 'philosophy' of one’s railway, and time spent thinking over the alternatives and their relative merits will be a good investment. The design, size and character of a layout can be very different according to what aspect of railways interests the modeller. Some are interested mainly in highly detailed scenery and buildings, realistic trackside vehicles and figures, others may be interested in signalling, and will want a fully signalled layout. Others will be happy with no signals at all, however unrealistic this appears. Most modellers seem to prefer locomotives in action above all else, and the other aspects of the model take a backward place. Whatever it is, much time and effort will be saved in construction if this is decided in advance of starting.